Marriage

When ADHD Disrupts (and Ruins) the Romance

Distractability poisons romance and eroticism, but ADHD and sexuality can absolutely co-exist in a healthy relationship. Learn how to revive intimacy, intrigue, and excitement with your partner.

Two hands of adults with ADHD forming a heart shape as they work through their marriage problems.

ADHD and sex: It’s a topic almost no one writes about, even though almost every adult with ADHD I’ve treated has had an ADHD-related sexual problem. One of the most common complaints is a lack of sexual intimacy. By this, I don’t mean no sex, but sex that doesn’t foster genuine emotional intimacy.

Good sex is possible only if both partners in an ADHD marriage feel relaxed and playful — and are capable of shutting out the outside world to savor the moment. That isn’t easy for adults with ADHD. How can a man who has trouble “lingering” enjoy sex? How can a woman focus on giving pleasure (or getting it) if she is thinking about repainting the living room or processing e-mail?

Sexual ennui is another big problem. Adults with ADHD thrive on excitement in all things, and that includes their relationships and their sexuality. As a romantic partnership matures, and passion inevitably ebbs, someone with ADHD may lose interest in sex and move on to other activities or other people who are more stimulating. Boredom with sex is one reason for the high rate of divorce among couples affected by ADHD.

In some relationships, a lack of sexual intimacy reflects a power struggle. Typically, the partner without ADHD will begin to assume ever-greater control of shopping, finances, parenting, and everything else that goes on in the household. At some point, she starts to resent having to “do all the work” and nags her spouse.

Meanwhile, the partner with ADHD starts to feel more like a child than a lover. This creates a dual problem: The spouse without ADHD builds up so much resentment that sex doesn’t sound like much fun, while the other partner’s growing view of his spouse as a parent diminishes his own sexual interest. And so, energy that was once devoted to sex gets channeled into hobbies and other nonsexual pursuits.

Do you spend a big portion of each day reminding, coaxing, or goading your partner — or vice versa? If so, odds are, you’re in one of these frustratingly anti-erotic relationships.

In other relationships, the issue is poor time management.

Maybe one partner is in the mood, while the other is sound asleep. Or maybe one is waiting expectantly in the bedroom while the other is Googling the latest stock quotes. (One patient of mine calls her husband’s computer his “plastic mistress.”) Sadly, these couples often assume that some underlying conflict is keeping them from having sex, when what they actually have is a scheduling problem.

No matter what issues you face, the first step toward resolving them is to understand that ADHD plays a major role in how you relate to each other sexually. Step two is to acknowledge that the problem is likely to be biological in nature, rather than emotional. In other words, it’s not that you don’t love each other. It’s that ADHD-influenced bad habits get in the way.

The spouse with ADHD needs to learn how to linger. Practice in nonsexual settings — for instance, talking with your spouse over a cup of coffee, or visiting a museum together — before trying out the skill in the bedroom. And both spouses need to let go of resentments and work to rebalance their relationship. A skilled therapist can help with these issues. If you’re enmeshed in the parent/child pattern I described, it’s essential to start sharing responsibility for organization, child care, money, and so on. Gradually, romance will reawaken.

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